FOXBORO -- For an NFL team, choosing between Clay Matthews or Rob Gronkowski might be the ultimate win-win scenario.
Do you go for one of the best young linebackers in the game, a playmaker who can impact a game like few defenders in the league? Or do you go for the tight end who has become a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, too quick to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be defended by a defensive back?
There was no way of knowing it at the time, but a draft weekend deal in 2009 laid the groundwork for New England to go the latter route. It would cost them a shot at Matthews, but in the end, the deal did ultimately net them Gronkowski.
It all began in 2009, when New England had the 23rd pick, and ended up trading down and out of the first round, shipping the pick to Baltimore and moving down three spots while picking up the Ravens’ fifth-round selection. The Patriots then dealt themselves out of the first round altogether, sending that 26th pick and the fifth-round selection from the Ravens to the Packers for a second-round pick (No. 41) and a pair of third-rounders (No. 73 and No. 83 overall).
Green Bay used the pick to select Matthews, and New England fans watched as Matthews finished his rookie year with 10 sacks, while the Patriots only had one player finish with more than five, and end up with 31 as a team.
Flash forward to 2010, a very good year if you were a team in the market for a tight end. In addition, to Gronkowski, Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham, Miami’s Jimmy Graham, Iowa’s Tony Moeaki, Florida’s Aaron Hernandez, Oregon’s Ed Dickson and BYU’s Dennis Pitta were some of the big names available that year.
As a collegian, Gresham appeared to be the most pro-ready. In one season as a starter for the Sooners, he set school records for a tight end with 950 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on 66 catches. But Gronkowski was also an intriguing prospect. An impressive combination of size and speed, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski had 75 catches for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns in two seasons at Arizona.
Despite the big numbers, a back issue raised some red flags -- he missed the entire 2009 season after having surgery on a disk that was sticking out and onto his spinal cord, and his rehab prevented him from participating at the combine. As a result, the book on Gronkowski read: an undeniable talent, but in a draft with so many good tight ends (particularly Gresham) combined with what might be a troublesome injury, probably not a high first rounder.
“The kid was a late first-round talent, and I do think the back effected his draft status, especially when it comes to guaranteed money. Not by much, but allowed him to slip,” said one AFC personnel man when asked for his collegiate assessment of Gronkowski. “Talentwise, he was one of the best tight ends in that draft in terms of complete skill set: size, pass game, run game, movement skills, hands, etc. Even at that point, you could tell he had a good ceiling and upside factor, and had the tools to be a three-down starter.”
There was a feeling that the Patriots were going to address their tight end needs in the draft. New England was undergoing an extreme makeover at the position that offseason: They cut former first-round pick Ben Watson and jettisoned veteran Chris Baker. They started with the relatively low-impact acquisition of Alge Crumpler, and as the draft day approached, more people started linking Gronkowski to the Patriots.
“Tight end and wide receiver are two spots I think you can get really, really good value in the second round, where they’re sitting,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said about a month before the draft. “Maybe it’s an [Illinois’s] Arrelious Benn with one of their earlier picks, at wide receiver. At tight end, I think you can cash in, even late in the second round. Rob Gronkowski from Arizona would be a good pick. He’s had some injuries and would be a first-round pick if it were not for those injuries. He’s a tough blocker and really catches the ball well. I would say he’s an underrated athlete.”
Behind the scenes, it was clear the Patriots had more than just a passing interest in Gronkowski, regardless of his back issues. It was also clear that they were going to do something to address their need at tight end in the draft, and after figuring that they couldn’t get Gresham, appeared to set their sights on the group that included Gronkowski. They worked him out roughly three weeks before the draft, a session that included filmwork and a meeting with the coaches. In that get-together, the New England braintrust saw something special.
“He was a productive player at Arizona when he was on the field,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “Some of the things that you see now showed up that year as well. You know [when] you don’t play a full season, you have to take the information at your disposal about where you think the player is ultimately going to be.
“In the end, we took all the information and we felt confident that he was going to be able to play at a certain level or at least the level he showed his sophomore year. With the draft, you guys follow it as much as anybody – really, in the end you’re really not sure how it’s going to unfold. You go through your process. He was a good football player – no question about it. We had the opportunity to select him and that’s what we did.”
They weren’t the only team interested in Gronkowski, however. The Ravens were also in need of a tight end, and they spent a lot of their predraft activity kicking the tires on Gronkowski. (Despite the fact that Gronkowski would later say the Ravens showed “a pretty decent amount” of interest in him, it turns out that Baltimore was just bluffing on Gronkowski. The Ravens ended up taking Dickson and Pitta.)
The Patriots took cornerback Devin McCourty out of Rutgers with their first-round pick, and then sat and waited. Sitting at No. 44, New England saw the Ravens at No. 43. The Patriots jumped on the phones with one of their favorite trading partners, the Oakland Raiders, and they moved up to No. 42. With the pick, they took Gronkowski. (Their remake of the tight end position would be complete when they picked up Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round.)
“He’s a big guy. He’s a hard matchup for a defensive back,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Gronkowski shortly after the selection was made official. “He’s big and he plays big and he has a big frame. A lot of times he just boxes them out and they stuff it in there to him and he’s just a hard guy to cover.
“He’s a strong runner with the ball in his hands. He’s run through some tackles, made some yards after the catch. They used him in the passing game. They used him in a number of different ways – deep routes, middle read routes and also some individual isolation stuff and then the conventional passing tree we see most tight ends run.”
As a result of the picks they acquired in 2009, the Patriots would also select up Darius Butler, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman. But Gronkowski remains the standout, a fair tradeoff for Matthews: In almost two seasons in the NFL, the big tight end has revolutionized the New England offense, catching 107 passes for 1,474 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“Clay’s a good football player,” Caserio said. “I think the Packers are happy they have Matthews, and we’re happy with the players that we have on our team.”